Short Films – Lessons Learned

I made a short film, Fatal.

The absolute best thing about making a film is that you learn what not to do next time. So in the spirit of saving you some trouble when you make your first short film, here’s a few things I learned.

Have a suitable script

I knew that the film would be a one-day no-budget shoot. So that means, realistically, two or three actors in one location.

I considered going as far as the garden, my bedroom, or the local Travelodge, but in the end decided that my front room would do. Then I wrote a script featuring two actors in a front room. So the shoot itself was quick and easy.

Record your sound separately

Seriously, this is the most important thing I learned. Always have a separate soundtrack.

I knew one sound guy, and he’s no longer working in the business. I tried a couple of other leads, but time was getting short, and the DP swore blind that we could just run the sound from the boom mike into the camera and it would be fine.

Not having a separate sound guy is the worst mistake you can have.

If no-one’s monitoring the sound levels when you’re shooting, this means that you can’t match sound in editing. There were some great shots I couldn’t use at all because the background traffic noise was too high. Sound levels vary from scene to scene because no-one was watching the meters, so the actors don’t sound their best – the recorded dialogue is either clipped, or too quiet and had to be boosted (with loss of quality, and added background noise).

Editing the film took maybe twice as long as it needed to because I had to dance around the sound problems all the time. Even now, there’s one particular shot where the traffic is super-loud – and that was the best take, even after playing with it to filter out as much background noise as I could.

And then there are the scenes which sound the way they should. But, of course, they don’t match the rest of the scenes. To make it work, I had to add extra traffic noise throughout, so that although it’s noisy at least it matches.

Sound guy. Don’t believe anyone who says you can run it into the camera.

One small crumb of comfort is that even Joss Whedon can get it wrong. Check the traffic noise suddenly springing up in the laundrette in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog when Captain Hammer confronts his nemesis.

Be aware of the background

I cleared out a lot of the front room to get a nice background. (See those nice empty shelves next to the music system?)

Not enough, though. All the clutter in the background distracts you from the important thing: the acting.

Also, there’s a piece of gaffer tape that appears and disappears from the bannisters, because it got stuck there to keep it out of the way and no-one noticed it was in shot.

Have more runners than you think you need

It was a five-person crew, including me. As little as one extra runner to make tea, sort out food, and check the background would have freed me up to do more actual directing.

Assign someone to be the production manager and deal with everything that’s not directing. If you’re the director and production manager on the same shoot, both jobs are going to suffer.

Mark off your coverage

I had a shotlist, but I didn’t make sure that all the dialogue was covered twice. In one place I had nothing but a master shot.

Fortunately, I had a master shot. The master shot is the first thing you shoot when you do the scene: Camera static, everything in view, run the scene from beginning to end. It meant I had something to fall back on when I was short of footage.

Which I was, because I didn’t mark off my coverage.

So there you have it. With my next film, I can look forward to making lots of exciting new mistakes.

12 responses to “Short Films – Lessons Learned”

  1. At least you didn’t do what I did and agree to shoot a crucial scene, with a running tap, mute because it was midnight and the sound recordist and camera op were getting cranky with each other… Oh the look of horror on my editor’s face when he realised there was no sound.

  2. I really liked your film, despite the shortcomings sound-wise. I thought the unexpected twist at the end was very clever and was totally unexpected. I thought the older guy did a good job of threatening the younger guy, although I did think the younger guy could have acted a bit more “scared” given that he was gagged and had a gun up against him. Still, people will react in different ways! I guess I just thought he seemed a bit too calm and collected in his responses post-gaggage…

    I see what you mean about a seperate sound track being essential… the traffic was quite distracting at times and I think the scene would have been a bit more effective in total silence (tension-wise).

    My goodness, though, you are lucky to have the right connections to be able to make a film, even if it was non-budget. All I have back at home is a camcorder and my laptop… Add no knowledge of filmaking to that, and I fear I won’t be able to make anything as good as what you achieved here! I might have to take a leaf out of Helen Smith’s book and make some amateur funfilms to get me learning… He he…

  3. Jennifer: Arg!

    Michelle: A camcorder and a laptop’s all you need.

    You can find out how to get free video editing programmes from here:

    To find professional actors in the UK, (assuming you don’t know anyone yourself yet) go here: On a one-day shoot, most actors will work for food, credit, and a copy if you’re not making any money on it either. Obviously if you do make money on it, you need to give them some!

    Go on. Make yourself a film.

  4. Oh god, sound! I had to re-do 90% of the sound on my no-budget short. It was shot on a camcorder but I was lucky enough to have professional help after that. The shoot took one morning. The editing and sound took two days each, while a separate voice-over was recorded by a mate in an evening. I am hugely indebted to them that it’s at all watchable. Nice work on Fatal, Piers!

  5. Thank you for the links, Piers 😀

    I sure will try my hand at it as soon as I get home!

    And, lucky me, I have a fiance who is a whizz kid at learning new programs and figuring out how to do technical stuff… So I shall enlist his help methinks!

    How do you do a seperate sound track, though? Do you need to attach little microphones to the actors to hone in on their voices, or is it a case of dubbing?

    I have a lot of ideas for shorts and the prospect of making them myself really excites me. The fact I could make it exactly how I see it in my mind gives me butterflies!

    I feel a bit shy on the offset, though, thinking about approaching people to act in my shorts, having to explain to them exactly what I want them to do (some of my ideas are a bit obscure)… I’m just a little shy in that respect I guess… But I shall overcome that. I may have bailed out of my drama enthusiasm and confidence therein back in high school but I’ll be damned if I let my shyness stop me from making films! 😀

  6. Michelle: I don’t know, I didn’t have a sound guy. 😉

    I’ve seen them work though: they run a boom mike (which someone else holds) into a separate sound box, listening to the output through headphones for a clean take and and watching the meters to make sure they’re not chopping the top off the sound.

    They also bring their own clapperboard so that you can sync up the sound and video in the edit.

  7. Michelle, it depends on what format you’re shooting on, and how professional you want to be. At the very least – without recording a completely seperate soundtrack, you should run a mic (on a boom or radio mics depending on set up) through a mixer so the levels can be monitored. If you want seperate sound, you use a DAT recorder (and a mixer)or similar and sync it in the edit by using the clapper board. That’s the shorthand version anyway!

  8. Well done on the film Piers and really well done on writing this useful post. I’m in pre-production at the moment and had pretty much overlooked sound because my last shoot was silent.

    Finding someone to record it, on the other hand, is another matter.

  9. The two best places to pick up low-budget crew in the UK are Shooting People and Talent Circle.

    Both have listings for sound people.

    The thing to remember about sound operators, and actors, and musicians, and editors, and directors, and writers, is that there are other people at the same level that you are.

    All of who need credits and experience and money as much as you do.

    They’re going to learn as much from making your short film as you will.

    And the next time, when one of you gets a paying gig and needs a sound operator, or actor, or musician, or editor, or director, or writer at short notice, you’ll have someone that you can call.

    (Says the man who failed to get a sound recordist for his own short film. Ah well.)

  10. Helen – amateur films are the most fun, don’t you know 😉 We all gotta start somewhere!

    Jennifer and Piers – Thanks for the “sound” advice 😀 I only wish I had the equipment you mentioned in order to be as professional as all that technical stuff sounds! Lucky for me I know a few people into film-making, so at least I have a few contacts who might just be able to help me… We shall see!

    In the meantime, I shall concentrate on writing the shorts. All the film experementation won’t happen for me until January, but at least it gives me something to look forward to on my return from the Aussie adventure 😀 You never know, my reaquaintance with that phenomenon known as snow and ice might just inspire some “cool” films…

  11. Me likey.

    The gun man’s lines were good, but the victim had to wade through some cliches and his performance wasn’t interesting.

    I loved the twist, but I don’t think you rammed it home – a bit of confusion with the clarity of sound on the dying man’s lines. And the close up on the victim holding the gun showed he’s not really an actor. Plus there were too many lines in the letter to get the message across instantly.

    The gunshot was convincing.

    The sound was OK, given how critical you were in your blog post. But I can definitely see what you mean about the background clutter.

    Couple of things occurred to me. When you cut to the bound hands at the start, the rope doesn’t seem at all tight – maybe the hands could be going purple to show how bad a state the victim is in. And the gunman’s line about “suppose you’re wondering how I knew about you” made me wonder how he’d tied up the victim in the first place.

    Again, me likey. Good stuff.

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